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Coronavirus: UK MPs vote for return to parliament after remote working during lockdown

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Leader of the House of Commons Jacob Rees-Mogg in the House of Lords at the Palace of Westminster in London, Thursday Dec. 19, 2019.
Leader of the House of Commons Jacob Rees-Mogg in the House of Lords at the Palace of Westminster in London, Thursday Dec. 19, 2019.   -   Copyright  Aaron Chown, Pool via AP
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British MPs have backed a government motion to return to parliament after weeks of working remotely amid the COVID-19 lockdown.

The government's motion was adopted with 261 votes in favour and 163 against.

A cross-party amendment calling for remote voting to continue was meanwhile struck down by 242 votes to 185.

Social distancing measures imposed to curb the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic have led the majority of British MPs to avoid parliament for the past two months and work from home.

Parliamentary business has carried on through a "hybrid" system implemented in April which allowed a maximum of 50 MPs to be present in the chamber at any one time and voting to be done remotely.

But Leader of the House of Commons, Jacob Rees-Mogg, said MPs ought to return, arguing that "the total numbers on the estate will not increase significantly" because lawmakers' staff will continue to work from home.

He added in an op-ed for PoliticsHome that returning to parliament will improve "communication between MPs and ministers" and that "politics is better done face-to-face".

"With MPs present in Westminster, rather than scattered hither and thither, voters' interests will be better represented," he said.

Opposition MPs, however, argued that it is too early and risky for them to return to parliament.

The Commons is already too small to welcome the 650 MPs and some, including the Speaker Lindsay Hoyle, have expressed concerns about the traditional method of voting, in which lawmakers walk through separate "yes" or "no" lobbies because it would be impossible to maintain social distancing.

The government has since proposed an alternative method which would see lawmakers form a one-kilometre queue through the building before walking through the voting lobbies one by one.

The main opposition Labour party has reaffirmed its support for remote voting and hybrid virtual arrangements.

"Jacob Rees-Mogg's discriminator proposals would result in two classes of MPs. Those who can physically attend and those unable to owing to the Government's own rules, including having an underlying health condition or shielding responsibilities," Valerie Vaz, shadow leader of the House, also said.

"The abolition of the hybrid remote parliament which allowed all MPs to take part regardless of their personal circumstances is discriminatory and would not be acceptable in any other workplace," she added.

The UK is the second worst-hit country in the world with more than 39,100 people known to have died from COVID-19 since the beginning of the outbreak. Several MPs have contracted the virus including Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who was hospitalised for a week in April.